By the end of the 18th century, the study of medicine was becoming increasingly popular in Ireland. The demand for corpses came from the highest echelons of society, that of the medical profession. New medical halls as well as the college of surgeons needed a regular supply of cadavers for its doctors and students to dissect. The only corpses legally available to surgeons were those of executed criminals.
The law stated that only convicted murderers who were condemned to hang and have their bodies dissected were to be used by anatomists. There were between twenty and thirty executions per year and this number did not come near what was required by the surgeons. Body snatching was the only way to meet the demand created by the anatomists and with this many people saw that there was money to be made from the dead. By the early nineteenth century, science had come a long way and doctors had a good knowledge of how the human body functioned.
Body snatchers, also known ironically as resurrectionists, dug up corpses to sell them on to surgeons and anatomists. The resurrectionists were dealing bodies to anatomists who were dissecting them in medical theatres. Members of the public and medical students would pay to watch a leading surgeon perform. These performances were to prove very lucrative for the medical profession.
A doctor would buy a body for twelve guineas. Each student was charged three guineas to watch it being dissected. With an audience of one hundred and sixty students the anatomists could take in four hundred and eighty guineas a session. In today’s money that would be between thirty to forty thousand euro.
While there were many opportunist grave-robbers, others planned raids on Bully’s Acre, Dublin’s oldest cemetery, in advance. The grave-robbers often watched the graveyard in order to detect where the most recent bodies had been interred. Women were used to follow funerals and mix with the mourners in order to discover the sex and age of the deceased. That night the grave-robbers would return to the graveyard, many carrying specialist tools such as a wooden shovel, a length of rope and a sack all hidden in a handcart.
Bodies were not buried six foot deep as they are today and in most cases they were only buried six inches beneath the surface. The bodies generally lay east to west. The wooden shovels were used in order not to cause noise when digging. The earth was tipped on to the sacking so that it could be placed back on the grave after the body had been disinterred. The grave was only exposed at the top end. About a third of the coffin was exposed, to the widest or shoulder section of the coffin. The shovels were used to break open the coffin and the body was pulled out. The shroud was discarded.
If the coffin had been buried deep, a large hook was inserted in to the body and it was dragged from the coffin. The body was then trussed up with the rope –neck to heel and placed in the sack. The sack was lifted over the boundary wall and placed in the handcart and brought to its final destination, a medical hall.
The grave-robbers faced many hazards in their work; bodies infected with disease, watchmen with dogs, graves booby-trapped with pistols, angry relatives and the law. However, many thought the risk was worth it. A full size corpse in good condition could fetch six times the average wage. Human teeth were also a valuable commodity. False dentures were made from teeth that had been extracted from corpses and screwed on to whalebone plates by dentists. In many cases teeth were used as currency and exchanged in the backrooms of public houses.
One could be arrested for theft if found in the possession of a shroud. Shrouds were discarded as it was considered property and the body was not. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, it was considered that the body belonged to the earth.
As a child, Walter Thomas Meyler recalled being taken to Bully’s Acre to see Brian Boru’s supposed last resting place in the early nineteenth century. A horrific sight greeted Meyler. Many of the graves had been desecrated by the sack-em-ups and the graveyard was littered with discarded shrouds, blowing in the wind.
One night, Peter Harken, a demonstrator at Sir Philip Crampton’s medical school and a frequent visitor to the cemetery, led a group of students on a grave robbing expedition to Bully’s Acre. Having almost obtained a body, they were surprised by graveyard watchmen with guard dogs and were forced to abandon their cadaver. The students managed to scale the high boundary wall.
However, Harken, who was described as a portly gentleman, needed assistance in order to climb the wall. As the students grabbed his arms in order to hoist him up, the watchmen grabbed his legs and attempted to pull him back. A tug-of-war ensued between the watchmen and the pupils. The young students were numerically superior to the watchmen and managed to pull Harken over the wall and make their escape. Harken died in 1814 and it is believed the injuries he suffered in the incident at Bully’s Acre led to his premature death in his early thirties.
However not all body snatchers managed to escape.
When the cemetery was officially closed in 1832 a number of burials were still taking place.
A memorable story of an incident, that occurred after the cemetery was closed portrays vividly the problem of body snatching.
Early on the morning of March 11th 1842, a man named Kinsella was making his way to work in a distillery located in Marrowbone Lane near Dolphins Barn. He was stopped by a police constable and requested to participate as a juror at a coroner’s court. The body was that of an old man that had been retrieved from the canal. The constable assured Kinsella that he would not be detained too long as there were no visible marks on the deceased and that a verdict of drowning would be found.
Kinsella was sworn in as a juror and brought forward to examine the body as was deemed necessary by law. On seeing the corpse he clutched at the hand of the body and fell to his knees exclaiming, “My poor dear father, we buried him a week ago, decently and well in the fields at Bully’s Acre, Kilmainham. What was he doing in the canal and dressed in clothes that did not belong to him?”
The authorities failed to convince Kinsella that he was mistaken and an enquiry followed. The subsequent investigation revealed that the doctor and the coroner were in collusion. Between them, they had disinterred bodies that had been buried in the graveyard, dressed them in old clothes and disposed of them into the canal. The finding of corpses in the canal swelled the coroner’s court with inquests thus increasing the workload for which they were paid handsomely. If the corpse suffered damage due to a collision with a barge or a boat this increased their payments, as a doctor would be needed to perform a post mortem examination.
The enquiry led to a conviction for both the doctor and the coroner and they were relieved from their positions.
Very few prosecutions took place as the authorities turned a blind eye to the grave-robbers as they were supplying bodies to powerful and important surgeons. Others believed that a better understanding of anatomy led to better surgery. Backed by these powerful men the resurrectionists were almost untouchable and by 1830, bodies were becoming a serious commodity.
After the case of the resurrectionists Burke and Hare in Britain, many surgeons lobbied the government to bring in a law to stop bodysnatching. The anatomy Act of 1832 stated that unclaimed bodies from the workhouses could be released and used for dissection. This in effect put a stop to the work of many body-snatchers as the high mortality rate among the poor would keep a steady supply to the medical profession. Bodysnatching still continued in the years that followed the Act but not on the scale that had been witnessed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
The graveyard slowly returned to normal.
Resources and Related Links:
Meyler, W.T. St. Catherines Bells: An Autobiography, 2 Vols. (London & Dublin, 1868-1870)
By The Sign of the Dolphin (ed) C. Scuffil (Dublin, Elo Press, 1993)
Post by Paul O’Brien